DATE May 7, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: John Burns discusses covering the war in Afghanistan
for The New York Times
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest John Burns is a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He's
serving as the bureau chief for the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He
started writing about the region long before September 11th. In 1997, he won
a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Taliban's takeover. It was his
second Pulitzer; his first was for the coverage in Bosnia in 1993. Burns has
been with The Times since 1975, and has served as bureau chief in New Delhi,
Toronto, Beijing and Moscow. He's on a brief visit to the United States
before returning to Afghanistan. He says that the US military is searching
for bin Laden in southeast Afghanistan, where the terrain makes it difficult
to hunt for anyone. The area is mountainous with a sparse population, caves
are everywhere. There are no roads, only donkey trails. I asked him to
describe the US military operation there.
Mr. JOHN BURNS (The New York Times): My impression is that American armed
forces are learning on the job, understandably. First of all, it's an area of
the world in which, thankfully, they have not been involved in combat before.
Secondly, thankfully, American forces have only rarely been involved in combat
anywhere since the Vietnam War, and you now have a situation where American
military commanders, several of them that I've encountered, are post-Vietnam
officers. So if they're learning on the job, it's not surprising; quite a
few mistakes were made.
To start with your question, the recent tactic is to put American boots on the
ground, along with principally British, but also Australian, Canadian, Danish
and others, to go in search of bin Laden in small force units,
helicopter-borne. This is a difference from earlier in the ground combat
phase of the war where the emphasis was mainly on using allied Afghan forces,
allied to high-altitude bombing. That's what we saw at Tora Bora, which was,
as you recall, in December--November-December, the first place that sightings
of bin Laden were reported. Subsequently, at the battle of Shah-e-Kot,
southwest of Kabul in March, and the consequences of relying on Afghan ground
forces in large numbers at Tora Bora were that, in my view, if bin Laden was
there--and he probably was--it enabled him to escape. It also resulted,
unhappily, because of the riots on Afghan intelligence, on a much higher level
of Afghan civilian casualties than I think was tolerable.
Now that's changed lately. There's much less bombing. There are many more
American and allied boots on the ground, and I think this is now a much, much
more effective military strategy.
GROSS: Can you be more specific about the higher level of casualties than is
Mr. BURNS: Yes. It's very difficult, and I think probably would be foolish
of me to try and estimate how many people have died. At the lower estimate
it's hundreds; at the higher estimates it would be thousands. And, of course,
people who have concentrated on this, including some American relief
organizations in Afghanistan, which have made a particular focus of this
issue, very often use as a kind of benchmark 2,823, I believe, the number of
of people who died at the World Trade Center, as if a figure in excess of that
in Afghan civilian casualties would change the fundamental moral balance of
the war. I personally can't agree with that at all. I think we really don't
know. We do know that large numbers of Afghan villages have been bombed, and
that quite large number of Afghan civilians who were, as far as we can tell,
completely innocent of any involvement with al-Qaeda and the Taliban have died.
Some of these bombing raids, if not most of them, resulted from reliance on
Afghan intelligence that was faulty, late or poisoned. There are not a wide
range of choices in terms of Afghan military allies, and the United States has
probably made some very hard choices in doing so. When I say that I can't
personally accept any kind of moral equation between the numbers of Afghan
civilians who have died, regrettable as that is, and the Americans who died on
September the 11th, it's for the very obvious and simple reason that what
happened on September the 11th was willful, intended, deliberate, and the
deaths of Afghan civilians, of course, has not been deliberate.
I think, having said that, it's also true that in time, and I'm sure this will
be the case, the Congress of the United States and the administration might
want to consider listening to the voices of those Afghans who have survived
those bombing raids who, wherever we go in the combat areas, appeal to us for
American compensation, or at least consideration.
I met a man last week in a village in eastern Afghanistan near to a site of
one of these bombing raids who said to me--and he was standing in a house that
had been destroyed by Russian bombing, Soviet bombing during the period of
Soviet military occupation in the 1980s, to which he had just returned as a
refugee from Pakistan. So he was enormously grateful to the United States for
the liberation that allowed him to go home after 22 years, but he has
relatives who have been subjected to American bombing, and he said, `What we
would really like is an apology.' I think they want some sort of recognition,
and I know that in the largess of spirit that this country capable, that, of
course is possible, and I'm sure in time will be done.
GROSS: When you're dealing with the American bombing of villages in
Afghanistan, bombings that were either a mistake or that, you know,
accidentally killed civilians while looking for leaders of al-Qaeda, do you
feel pressure from either side to report--or to not report, as the case may
be--the number of casualties? Is there any pressure from Afghan sources to
make sure you go with the story? Is there any pressure from military sources
to play it down?
Mr. BURNS: No, no, I don't think that pressure is exactly the right phrase or
not from Afghan sources. As a matter of fact, even in the Karzai government
in Kabul, the American-backed government in Kabul, there is considerable
unease about this question of American bombing with unintended civilian
casualties. The foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, told me a couple of
weeks ago that he felt that if Ahmed Shah Massoud who, as you know, was
assassinated--the Northern Alliance leader who was assassinated by al-Qaeda on
September the 9th had been alive, and therefore likely would now be the
defense minister in the new government, that he would have insisted that more
caution be taken by American commanders and the question of bombing of
villages in particular. So no pressure from Afghans.
The pressures, in some respects, are ones which are self-induced, and they're
these: If you're going to say that American bombs have killed significant
numbers of civilian casualties, you've got to be absolutely sure about it.
And by definition we reach these places, very often, at a considerable remove
in time and distance, and it's sometimes very difficult to sort out,
especially since American military commanders have not altogether been candid
about these particular operations, to determine really what happened.
So I think the straightforward answer is that The New York Times, I'm pretty
certain, is keen to know as much as it can about this war--I am certain--in
every respect. But if we had perhaps given less attention to this, and I
think we should, it's partly because we feel we need to know more. We're
under tremendous pressure, in any event, in covering the news. These bombing
sites, these villages, are often very far distant from where we are. And we
want to be sure about it. It is a subject that we're going to be paying more
and more attention to. We have already. I personally have written stories
about civilian casualties from American bombing, as have my colleagues.
But if you sense a sense of some unease on my part, it would be correct. I
think it's something we need to do more about, but we need to be very sure
we're on sound ground when we do it.
GROSS: I know that some of the fighting now is happening in a very
geographically challenging area, so it's hard for you to get there, but do you
have access to it? Is the military allowing you the access that you'd like to
have to cover the war as it continues in this phase?
Mr. BURNS: I would guess that no correspondent of my newspaper or any other
American or Western newspaper ever assigned to a war would say yes to that.
It's just in the nature of the relationship between armies in combat and what
we do in the media business that we will never be satisfied. I think they
could do more than they've done. The Shah-e-Kot battle, they did provide
access to reporters and photographers to go up, but it was pretty
unsatisfactory. On the other hand, you have to say that if you put a reporter
or a photographer into the middle of combat, either you've going to have him
fend for himself, in which case he's likely to end up dead, or you're going to
have to commit people to protect him, and that's a pretty costly enterprise.
And so there's always a kind of to-and-fro on this. We'd like more access.
We're getting very little access to the current phase of the war, this small
force operation ...(unintelligible) area.
GROSS: And is that because of the nature of the fighting, or is that because
the military doesn't want you to see?
Mr. BURNS: Well, I'm sure it's both. I'm sure it's both. And we've been far
from satisfied, not just with access, but with the kind of flow of information
that we've got. I think in some respects there's a lesson been taken from
Vietnam here by the officers who currently command these operations who feel
that American forces in Vietnam were perhaps too accessible. And so this has
been an issue, it's absolutely an issue. But you have to say also that the
resources are limited by nature of the American decision to limit the number
of troops on the ground and the number of helicopters. They don't have a
surfeit of choices in all of this, but clearly if the question is, do we have
enough access? The answer is we do not. We'd like more.
GROSS: My guest is John Burns, a foreign correspondent for The New York
Times. He's reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan. We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is John Burns. He's a New York Times foreign correspondent.
He's the bureau chief for the war in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and he's been
covering that region for about 14 years.
What story have you taken the biggest risk to report?
Mr. BURNS: I suppose in my own case, in the early phases of the Shah-e-Kot
battle, when I was frustrated at being unable to get on American military
helicopters that were flying out of the Bagram air base north of Kabul--it's
an old Soviet air base about 40 miles north of Kabul--and there were so-called
embedded press--that is to say, press who are mostly Washington-based--who had
joined American forces long before that operation actually began, and some of
them actually went up to the battlefield almost as soon as it began, and
stayed with the troops on an embargoed basis for 72 hours.
We who were Afghan-based reporters didn't have that option, and it was pretty
plain that they weren't going to give us that option, so I decided to go to
the battlefield myself and set off with an interpreter, a driver and a
photographer, and drove the 110 miles, or thereabouts, to the battlefield.
And I should explain that what is perhaps cynically called the air show
amongst the press corps in Afghanistan, which is to say that you can stand off
from a battlefield and you can watch the vapor trails and the B-52s and B-1s
and F-18s coming in, and it's an awesome if terrible sight to see, the bombs
falling on the mountaintops. And we stood back for about two days, and then
the thought came to me, `Why stay 10 miles back if you can get a lot closer?'
And so the four of us, in a Land Cruiser, ventured over a plateau that lay
between us and the mountain valley where the battle was being fought. And
there is no mark, no go area, there's nothing anywhere which tells you, `Don't
proceed beyond this point because you're in an active combat zone.' It's a
judgment you have to make for yourself. Fortunately, I had told my companions
that since we were entering into an area where any movement spotted from
American military helicopters would presumptively be an enemy movement, any
ground movement, anybody driving in a Land Cruiser, I said, `Should the
helicopters come after us, get out of the vehicle fast and deploy to left and
right of the vehicle. Stand toward the helicopters and put your hands in the
Well, to my enormous consternation, when we'd got within about a mile of the
active fighting, a group of American combat helicopters, which were tracing
their way into the valley along the line of mountains, suddenly two of them
broke away from their course into the valley and started heading across the
plateau directly for us, and did that ominous thing that combat helicopters do
when they're preparing to fire, which is they dip their noses. And we were
looking straight at Apache or Cobra helicopters coming ever closer to us. We
spread out from the Land Cruiser, put our arms in the air. Remember, we were
right in the middle of an area where American combat troops had died and been
wounded in significant numbers. We were driving a Land Cruiser, which is the
standard mode of transport for al-Qaeda and the Taliban when they don't travel
by donkeys or horseback. We had no markings on the vehicle that would have
been accessible to the pilots which said `press.' And we stood there and they
came ever closer to us, and I have to say, I thought, `Well, this is probably
And when they were within about 600 yards probably, they pulled away sharply,
and you can imagine we were very relieved. Later on when I was back at
Bagram, I mentioned to an American military officer that this had happened,
and he said he'd heard about it from the pilot concerned. And they have,
apparently, pretty advanced optics on those aircraft, and they had determined,
looking at us, with our hands in the air, that we were not Taliban and
al-Qaeda and therefore had not fired. Otherwise I wouldn't be sitting here
talking to you now.
GROSS: When you said to yourself, `This is it,' back when you thought that
you were going to be attacked by that Apache helicopter, did you say to
yourself, `This is it, but, hey, it's really been worth it to be able to cover
this war'? Or did you feel like, `You know, I wish I really hadn't been
Mr. BURNS: No, I'll tell you what I thought. Many of my colleagues who have
died as foreign correspondents have died despite all sensible precautions
being taken, and in the end most of us conclude that the essential variant is
luck. What I thought standing on that plateau with those helicopters heading
towards us over the 90 seconds or so before the crisis passed away was that,
`If this turns out badly, people will hold me, and rightly so, responsible,
that this was an irresponsible thing to do to venture this far forward into a
combat area and we shouldn't be here.' That was my principal sense. But to
say that, you know, two months later sitting in a studio in Berkeley,
California, of course, somewhat overlooks the fact that you are making these
decisions on a battlefield in a combat area under the pressure, always, of
wanting to get closer to the story. That's a natural instinct. And to find
the balance in all of this is extremely, extremely hard. I learned a lesson
from that. I don't think that I would do that again. It ended up providing a
quite useful page one story for The New York Times, but I'm quite sure that my
editors, had they had any prior notice of this, would have said this is
absolutely more than they expect or want.
GROSS: In your page one story did you mention how you were almost killed, or
did you leave that part out?
Mr. BURNS: I left it out. I left it out. You know, it's a difficult
judgment to make at what point our personal situation becomes relevant to the
reader. Thinking about it now, I think the part that probably was relevant
was not that we exposed ourself to considerable hazard, but the fact that the
American helicopter crews behaved in the way that they did.
GROSS: As carefully?
Mr. BURNS: As carefully as they did. You know, having written about
instances in which the villages and convoys have been bombed where it turned
out the people who died were not Taliban or al-Qaeda, it was quite instructive
to me. And it wasn't the only instance at about that time that I saw that
American armed forces do act with a degree of caution and accountability in
these matters, that I think in the history of warfare is unusual.
And I'll give you another instance. At Bagram air base, immediately before
and in the early phases of the Shah-e-Kot battle, I was quite surprised to
find that they have lawyers attached to these combat units, in this case, the
101st Airborne Division and the 10th Mountain Division, who went unit by unit
before they were deployed into the valley, instructing them--or I would guess
reinstructing the troops--in the Geneva Convention and something called the
Law of Land Warfare, as I recall, which includes such things as
proportionality, that you measure your response on the battlefield
proportionally to the threat to which you're subjected, that before deeming
someone to be an enemy--and this of course in an area where it's extremely
difficult to determine who is Taliban and al-Qaeda and who is not.
But according to these briefings to these troops, it's necessary that somebody
show hostile intent before he be attacked as a putative enemy. So I found
that very instructive. And, you know, I'm pretty certain, because I was also
in Afghanistan during the previous war, that is to say the war of Soviet
occupation and the subsequent war in which the Soviet-installed government
hung on for three or four years after Soviet troops left. I doubt very much
whether a Soviet or Afghan Communist helicopter in that situation would have
taken the trouble to determine whether these people standing in the mouth of a
combat area in a Land Cruiser were enemy or not.
GROSS: John Burns is a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He'll
be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, Mexican film director Alfonso Cuaron on his new movie "Y tu
mama tambien," about two sexually obsessed teen-age boys who hit the road with
an older woman. And we continue our conversation with John Burns. He's
reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan for The New York Times.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with John Burns. He's a
foreign correspondent for The New York Times based in Pakistan and
Afghanistan. He's serving as The Times' bureau chief for the coverage of the
war. He's The Times' former Islamic affairs correspondent. Burns won a
Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for his coverage of the Taliban takeover of Kabul.
Where were you on September 11th, and how did you first hear about the
Mr. BURNS: Well, I was actually in England. I was taking a day off, and I
was about to go to the golf course. My job at that time was Islamic affairs
correspondent, which had involved me over a period of some time in reporting
on bin Laden and the traces of bin Laden, most prominently, I suppose, in the
bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, which, as you know, was the last major
terrorist attack that preceded September the 11th. That occurred October the
12th of the year 2000. And on that assignment, I had met a fellow by the name
of Peter Bergen, probably well-known to American television watchers as one of
CNN's terrorism analysts after September the 11th, who was writing a book
about bin Laden at the time we met in Yemen.
As I prepared to go to the golf course just after lunch on September the 11th
in England, Peter called me, and it was just after the first plane hit the
first tower, and said nothing but, `Switch on the television, for God's sake.'
And I switched on the TV, and then I saw what the rest of the world saw, with
the second plane hitting the second tower. And I think there was no
doubt--I'm pretty sure this was true for most Americans, but it was absolutely
certain for any of us who had followed bin Laden over the years--that this was
a bin Laden/al-Qaeda operation. And I then put my hand up and volunteered to
head eastwards to Pakistan and Afghanistan, which I did about 24 hours later.
And I've been there ever since.
GROSS: Having covered Afghanistan for many years, it must have been odd or
even bizarre for you to see so many reporters coming in after September 11th.
Mr. BURNS: Yes, it was, of course. And anybody who cared for Afghanistan had
to feel that finally, after all of this turmoil and misery of the past 22, 23
years, America's misery on September the 11th was, in fact, the moment of
likely liberation for Afghanistan. It's a huge paradox. But you talk to
Afghans now who knew, many, many of them, almost within minutes of what had
happened on September the 11th, astonishingly fast the news of what happened
traveled through a country in which there's little electricity and very few
television sets. But people heard about it over the Voice of America and the
BBC and so forth. And there was a very wide recognition that what had
happened in New York and Washington was likely portended the liberation of
Afghanistan from Taliban and al-Qaeda. Afghans, at least, in the overwhelming
majority, had very little doubt as to who was responsible for that.
GROSS: My impression is now that many Muslims in the region of the world
around Afghanistan are very angry at the United States, even though it was the
United States that helped liberate Afghans from the rule of the Taliban. Have
you come across many Muslims outside of Afghanistan who identify with the
Afghans who wanted to be liberated from the Taliban and think of America as a
hero of the story?
Mr. BURNS: There are all kinds of crosscurrents in all of this, many of them
contradictory. Let me just focus on one issue, the question of bin Laden
himself and al-Qaeda's accountability for what happened. Afghans and Muslims
in the wider world who--I won't say they're anywhere near close to a majority,
but there certainly is very large numbers of them--who identified in some way
with bin Laden's political program, there is a kind of disconnect because it's
extremely difficult to find anybody who will say to you that they endorsed
what happened on September the 11th. That's the good news. That's
universally condemned, even in the most militant madrassahs in Pakistan, where
many of the al-Qaeda and Taliban people had been indoctrinated.
Right from September the 12th on--and September the 11th, no doubt, too, but
my experience from September 12th, 13th on--they dissented from that action
and they called it barbaric, but they immediately said that, `Of course, bin
Laden cannot have been responsible for it. No Muslim could do this.' They
have maintained that position ever since, absurdly, of course, in face of the
fact that there are videotapes in which bin Laden himself has, in fact, owned
up to what happened.
So the man is embraced, the act is disavowed, and this obvious contradiction
is bridged by simply saying, `Well, he can't have done it.' And that's a
puzzling thing, but I think the conclusion for us is that, of course, bin
Laden managed to appeal to millions of people in the Muslim world by
distorting, even offering a deceitful and distorted account of what American
policy in the Middle East is. But my feeling is that the ultimate answer to
al-Qaeda and the Taliban does actually lie, not in the field of military
action, although they can be suppressed, of course, and largely eliminated for
a considerable period by military action; in the end, it will lie in
addressing the causes, and that's, of course, a very, very difficult, complex
issue, but achieving a just peace in the Middle East would go a very long way
GROSS: When do you return to Afghanistan?
Mr. BURNS: I'm going to return from California to New York, and then go on
back to Afghanistan, and I expect to spend the summer and the autumn and, from
what I read in The New York Times' Monday editions, some considerable time
there. I think this war is going to go on for some time, and for my money, if
you're a foreign correspondent right now, it's the most interesting place to
be in the world.
GROSS: Is there anything you're about to cover when you return to Afghanistan
that you're particularly, you know, like looking forward to covering or
particularly interested in finding out more about?
Mr. BURNS: Yes, there is. I think that it's understandable that American
correspondents in The New York Times have concentrated very heavily on the
battle with al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The arc of that is descending somewhat.
I don't think there are going to be any main force confrontations from now on,
and what we need to do is we need to get more to the issue of the ascent of
Afghanistan, to the socioeconomic problems, to the lives of the people of
Afghanistan. We do it; we just don't do it enough. And I think that we'll be
doing a lot more of that.
In some ways, it's a more difficult thing to do. Covering military operations
is an issue which sort of is concentrated. It means particular places at
particular times, and there's a considerable degree of assistance that we get
in that: driving to Bagram air base or getting on helicopters when they allow
us to do it. We've got to get to the tough business of chronicling the lives
of the people of Afghanistan much more fully than we have until now.
GROSS: Well, John Burns, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. BURNS: It's been a great pleasure.
GROSS: John Burns is a foreign correspondent for The New York Times based in
Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Coming up, Mexican film director Alfonso Cuaron talks about his new movie, "Y
tu mama bambien."
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Alfonso Cuaron talks about his movie "Y tu mama tambien"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Alfonso Cuaron is the director of the new movie "Y tu mama tambien," which
translates to "And Your Mother, Too." It's about two teen-age boys whose
girlfriends are going away for the summer. Neither the boys, nor the girls,
can quite get to the point of committing to fidelity. After the girls leave,
the two boys, who are in a perpetual state of arousal, hit the road with an
older woman; not much older. She's 28 and has just left her husband. Cuaron
has described the movie as the story of two teen-age boys finding their
identity as adults and a woman trying to find her identity as a liberated
Our film critic John Powers says it's the sexiest movie ever made about young
men's overeagerness in bed. It offers a portrait of teen-age life that's so
smart, touching and sexually liberated that makes you embarrassed for what
passes as a teen movie in Hollywood.
"Y tu mama tambien" opens as one of the teen-age couples is having sex, but
it's not the kind of passionate, romantic encounter that we often see on
Mr. ALFONSO CUARON (Director, "Y tu mama tambien"): Actually, the sex in the
film is really bad.
Mr. CUARON: It's very clumsy and very rapid.
GROSS: Yes. Yes. Yeah, uh-huh.
Mr. CUARON: I guess it's like 90 percent of sex. I know that everybody hates to admit it, but 90 percent of sex is pretty much like that, and
particularly if it's teen-age sex. We wanted to present the sexes with the
same honesty that we presented a scene in a supermarket, and the camera is
always keeping a reflective distance, an objective distance. And, yeah, I
mean, the thing is that if you see Hollywood sex, for instance, the
characters, rather than having sex, they are doing some sort of aerobic
exercises. And they always choose the worst positions, you know, like
positions you say, `Oh, my God, that's so uncomfortable.' And there they are;
they are like, for hours, doing it, and usually there's a knife under the bed.
And then sex is accepted in Hollywood like that, or sex is accepted also if
it's about humiliating a woman or raping a woman; then sex is sort of
accepted. But if you try to portray sex in a very honest and natural way,
some people find it offensive.
GROSS: Were you ever uncomfortable directing the sex scenes, you know,
because the actors--I guess they're in their early 20s, the two actors playing
Mr. CUARON: They were in their late-teens when we were shooting.
GROSS: Uh-huh. Like in the opening scene, what did you tell the two actors
was going on in their minds that you wanted them to be thinking about?
Mr. CUARON: Well, the thing is that we had very clear it pretty much is a
scene about a very young couple that, after having sex, they are trying to
make each other promise that they are going to be faithful during the summer
because they're going to be apart. And pretty much they talk a lot about a
lot of things and they joke a lot, but they never promise each other nothing.
And how we staged the whole thing is who was going to be on top of the other,
and whoever was going to be on top of the other was going to have the power in
So it was a game of power, and we see at the beginning that the boy is on top
of the girl, and he's pushing for the girl to swear that she's not going to
sleep with anybody else. And then the girl goes on top of the boy, and the
boy then--is requesting him to promise. And then the whole thing keeps on
turning, whoever has the power of the conversation at that moment. And that's
how you stage it. So, in a way, the sexual aspect was irrelevant.
GROSS: Now there's more sex to come in the film. I think when it comes to a
movie getting a rating or being censored, whether the sex is good sex or bad
sex is kind of irrelevant, as long as it's sex and there's people who are
naked, there's going to be trouble. So what kind of trouble did you run into
in releasing the movie?
Mr. CUARON: Well, in Mexico, my company sued the government because of the
rating that was given to this movie.
GROSS: What rating did the Mexican government--Does the government give the
Mr. CUARON: Yeah, that was part of our legal suit, and it's still part of our
battle. They gave a rating for over 18 when it's a film that was intended for
young adults to see, also. And by young adults, I'm talking about 15 and
over. And part of the reasons we sued the government is because we want the
rating system to go away from the government. I find it very dangerous in
that the rating is in the hands of the government because, in the past, it has
been used as political censorship. What we're suggesting is the rating board,
because I believe in ratings--the rating board to be an independent entity
with representation of very diverse social groups, including the government
among these social groups, and to make the whole rating process a more
democratic process and ultimately giving back the responsibility of what the
children can see or not to the parents.
Here in America, it's a completely different issue because the rating system
doesn't belong to the government. It's the MPAA that rates the films. And...
GROSS: The Motion Picture Association of America.
Mr. CUARON: Of America, yeah. And we choose not to have an MPAA rating
because it would have been NC-17; that has a very bad connotation.
Mr. CUARON: And not only a bad...
Mr. CUARON: And not only a bad connotation, but it excludes you from a lot of
theaters and from a lot of publications. And I really believe that the MPAA
system has to evolve, and this is the time for the MPAA rating system to
GROSS: Now you said that you would like people 15 and over to be able to see
your movie. I think you have a couple of teen-age sons? Am I right?
Mr. CUARON: I have one teen-age son. And I'm not saying that they have to.
In Mexico, actually, a lot of sexual educators and a lot of teachers, they
were asking the parents to go and see this film with their kids or to send the
kids and then for them to see the film and discuss the film with them. I just
find it kind of absurd that it's a film that deals with teen-agers, with
teen-age behavior and teen-agers cannot see the film. It's like you cannot
see what you do.
GROSS: You're assuming most of the 15- and 16-year-olds are having sex
anyway, so they might as well see the movie?
Mr. CUARON: And if not, they are going to have sex very soon. And it's not
only about sex. The thing is that, for me, it's not only about sex. It's
about many things. It's about how you can hurt your life. Part of the aspect
of this film is that you have two characters that are filled with life, and
when they are confronted with their own identity, rather than embracing this
identity, they choose to wear masks. And, in a way, they become these dual
characters towards the end. And I think that there are a lot of taboos that
we carry around ourselves in terms of when we're looking for our identity.
And the more that themes and issues are spoken with teen-agers, I think that
the more free that these teen-agers are going to grow as adults later on.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Alfonso Cuaron, and he is the
director of the new film "Y tu mama tambien."
I imagine a lot of American movies came to the Mexican theaters where you saw
movies when you were growing up. What did you think that American teen-age
life was like based on movies that you saw?
Mr. CUARON: It was not that different than the Mexican teen-age life. I
think that the whole journey of being a teen-ager is a very universal journey.
And, in a way, that's the reason why I think that "Y tu mama tambien" has
connected with audiences all around the world. The difference starts to be
more when you're talking about class rather than countries. I think that the
middle class all around the world are pretty much the same, and the upper
class are pretty much about the same.
GROSS: Let me bring up class. There's three main characters in your movie.
They're each from different backgrounds. One of the boys is from a very
privileged background. One is from a working-class background. And the young
woman in the movie is an orphan. What kind of background are you from, you
Mr. CUARON: I'm right in between the two boys. I'm middle class, maybe more
upper class than Julio, but definitely more lower class than Tenoch. I'm
right in the middle. I'm part of a class that is actually disappearing in
Mexico; that is the middle class.
GROSS: What? The middle class is disappearing?
Mr. CUARON: Oh, yeah. Yeah, now there is a big lower class and a very tiny,
very, very, very wealthy class.
GROSS: Why is the middle class disappearing?
Mr. CUARON: Because it's being crushed between the upper and the lower class.
The way that modernism attacked Mexico, when economic liberalism arrived to
Mexico, the first casualty was the middle class. The small businesses
disappeared, favoring the big corporations. And with that, a lot of the
middle class disappeared.
GROSS: When you were growing up in Mexico, did you see a lot of American
films set in Mexico? And films I'm thinking of in particular, like "The Good,
The Bad and The Ugly," "The Magnificent Seven" and what's that Orson Welles
film with Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh?
Mr. CUARON: "Touch of Evil."
GROSS: "Touch of Evil."
Mr. CUARON: "Touch of Evil"
GROSS: Yeah, yeah.
Mr. CUARON: Yeah.
GROSS: So I'm wondering how Mexico looked to you through the eyes of American
Mr. CUARON: My favorite is Charlton Heston playing Lopez(ph). That was
funny. If you remember in "Touch"...
GROSS: Did you say `funny' or `phony'?
Mr. CUARON: It--both.
GROSS: Oh, OK.
Mr. CUARON: Both, both. But, yeah, that's a great film. Yeah, and actually
you gave examples of films that actually I like. I mean, "Touch of Evil" and
"The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" and...
GROSS: "Magnificent Seven."
Mr. CUARON: ..."Magnificent Seven," yeah, those are OK. No, I think I have
way more problem with many other films that they portray--because in those
films like the Sergio Leone films, those are Westerns that take place in this
mythical land. I'm really more offended about many contemporary films and the
description they have of Mexico. And growing up, you know, you would have all
these films that they had scenes in Mexico, going through Mexico, in which
Mexico's seen as this simplistic place where a lot of people with sombreros
Mr. CUARON: And with this vision of--you know, you have a Mexico with
mariachis playing "Guantanamera." That doesn't exist; "Juanta Ramera's"
a Cuban song, you know? Stuff like that. You know, this Hollywood view of
Latin America's all the same. Plus, in their view of what is that same, you
know? It's a place where people are in sombreros and, if you're not careful,
they're going to steal your money, and, you know, there are the banditos and
the corrupt politicians. And even now you see films like "Traffic" in which,
I think that, in a way, they are accurate in portraying the corruption in a
political system in Mexico. I was just surprised why it didn't portray the
corruption in the political system in the US also.
GROSS: My guest is Mexican film director Alfonso Cuaron. His new movie is
called "Y tu mama tambien." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron. He directed the new
movie "Y tu mama tambien."
Did you move to America to make movies, or were there other reasons why you
Mr. CUARON: Well, it was a series of coincidences. I was not planning to
leave Mexico at that point. I made a film, my first film, that I co-produced
with the government, with the Film Commission. I didn't have a good
relationship with them, and I knew that I was not going to be able to do
another film in Mexico for a while. And I got offers to do films in
Hollywood, so I just, you know, took the offer because I needed the work.
GROSS: How did Hollywood find out about you?
Mr. CUARON: I did this film in Mexico called "Love in the Time of Hysteria,"
and an agent signed me and they sold the film at the Toronto Film Festival.
And my agent signed me, and then he showed the film to Sydney Pollack. Sydney
loved the film, and he offered me one movie. And, you know, one thing took to
the other and I end up--and another thing is I love New York, and I had the
opportunity of living in New York and I took it.
I go to Mexico all the time. I need to reconnect with Mexico and touch holy
ground. So I go there very often. But at the same time, I feel very
comfortable living in different parts of the world.
GROSS: Now your new movie, "Y tu mama tambien," is being described in a lot
of articles as part of, like, a new wave or a rebirth or a new birth of the
Mexican film industry, along with movies like "Amores Perros," "Like Water for
Chocolate," Guillermo del Toro's movies, "The Devil's Backbone," and he also
directed "Blade II." Do you think that there's, like, something new or a
revival happening in the Mexican film industry?
Mr. CUARON: Not really. "Like Water for Chocolate" was a film--it was done
10 years ago. People talk about the rebirth because of movies like "Amores
Perros" and "Y tu mama tambien," and I keep on asking, `OK, and which other?'
And there are not that many other. I think that the problem that the Mexican
film community has to accept and confront is a problem of our provincial
mentality. Movies like "Amores Perros" show how you can be very specific in
terms of a context and nevertheless be very universal in terms of the subject
matter. And I think that's one of the great strengths of "Amores Perros."
I really have faith that younger generations now are going to start making
different kind of cinema in Mexico. Mexican filmmakers and Mexican artists
are coming from--they have to get rid of a lot of taboos. Like for instance,
in cinema in Mexico, you have a lot a of taboos: that if you're entertaining,
then you're superficial; if you are technically polished is that you want to
be Hollywood; if you deal with--your characters are middle class, then you're
bourgeois; if you don't have enough ideological denunciation, then you are a
reactionary. So I...
GROSS: So what's left?
Mr. CUARON: No, that's part of the problem. And then if you travel around,
then you are a bad Mexican, you know, and you're a sellout. So--but
there's--and that's part of the hangover of an ideological left wing in the
'60s. And I believe that now there is a younger generation that has a more
evolved vision of life and more evolved view of the world. And I think that
this generation is the one that is going to make the difference in Mexican
GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us about your movie. Thank you.
Mr. CUARON: Well, thank you very much, Terry.
GROSS: Alfonso Cuaron directed the new movie "Y tu mama tambien."
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man: One, two, three, four.
(Soundbite of music; credits)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man: (Singing) We're standing here, exposing ourselves. We are
showroom dummies. We are showroom dummies. We're being watched, and we can
hear our thoughts. We are showroom dummies. We are showroom dummies. We
look around, change your thoughts...
GROSS: On the next FRESH AIR, Neal Conan, host of NPR's "Talk of the Nation,"
tells us about the summer he left NPR to do play-by-play announcing for a
minor-league baseball team. He's written a new book called "Play by Play:
Baseball, Radio and Life in the Last Chance League." I'm Terry Gross. Join
us for the next FRESH AIR.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.